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Is chatting about charity churlish?

Lili Radloff over on Women24 raised an interesting question about whether humility should take precedence over charity, and whether society places so much emphasis on keeping our acts of charity a secret that nobody is really charitable at all. She suggests, probably accurately, that such thoughts have religious origin.

Like Lili, I am not really in the business of religion, and so it is not my intent to defend any religious teachings, but I would argue that “Give In Secret” is an overly narrow (if common) interpretation of the original teachings with which I am familiar. Rather, that message arises out of a broader criticism of a social system which placed onerous expectations of charity (or tithes) on those ill-equipped to meet those expectations (the poor), while the rich flaunted their charitable donations for popularity and self-gain (while probably skimming more than they contributed behind the scenes to boot).

Religious sourcing aside, and in the context of present day South Africa, there are some value principles relating to charity that are worth considering.

The Guilt Tax

The most important principle, by a long way, is that charity should not be a guilt tax, whereby the very privileged pay a pittance to charity as a way to avoid commitment to true transformation. To abuse a metaphor, it is a travesty when a hungry man is given a fish as a way to avoid teaching him to fish (which would be more difficult and introduce competition) – his death is only delayed by a day, while the man with the fish barely misses the one he gave away.

This is a critical issue in present day South Africa, where the far more important need is for long term transformation than for short term charity. (Admittedly the needs of the charity are often more urgent.) Where charitable acts defer responsibility for real change, I think criticism is justified.

But there are degrees of guilt tax – guilt tax brackets, if you will – from the girl with cake and good intentions to the schwarmy land baron with a soup kitchen in the front and a tik lab in the back. These degrees of guilt tax create a blurring of the lines in which it becomes difficult to tell which contributions to criticise and in which an outright condemnation of all public contributions is easier.

The Charity Paradox

Then there’s a social paradox in the issue that Lili’s raises – for some, in earlier times as today, the prohibition against talking about one’s contributions served as a handy cover for making no contributions. How convenient to encourage the overly narrow interpretation and thus keep our selfishness a secret. (Rarely do those who criticise ‘charity-bragging’ strike me as overwhelming philanthropic, but never mind.) More honesty would certainly create a disincentive for selfishness.

But then again – were vocal charitable acts to become the rage, I rather suspect that those unable to give in the required manner (for who would choose the popular charities and acceptable level of donations but the rich?) would again become victims of a different sort. Meanwhile, the Jacob Zuma Home for Retired Bodyguards and Donald Trumps Hair Revival Studio would be the cool place to give. Or am I being overly cynical?

Charity is not free

I take Lili’s implication that one person’s ‘bragging’ seems a small price to pay for what is another person’s (literal) daily bread. This is true, but sad – those in need of charity must trade their dignity for food – or cake, some would say. If I am hungry enough, I will dance naked in the street (very badly) for a sandwich, but the price I’d be paying would not be lost on me. I’m not sure if I’d be more hurt if the person charging me for the sandwich were doing so with good intentions, or a mean spirit.

And yet it is also ridiculous to let the hungry man starve to deprive the fish-having-man his right to show off. In that sense, turning charitable donations into a social symbol is a lesser evil.

But maybe being open about one’s charitable involvement is not always the same as bragging – I consider Bill Gates today to be an example of someone who does not hide their charitable contributions, but who does not appear to be marketing himself excessively in the process. Maybe therein lies a solution. Perhaps, to build very slightly on Lili’s argument, we should indeed move away from the overly narrow interpretation that giving should be top secret, and shift emphasis to the importance of giving at all, and talking about giving we are involved with. Maybe we shouldn’t be quite as cynical when others try to improve the lives of the people around them, permanently or temporarily.



P.S. There’s an argument for whether charity should be a thing at all. I consider that to be semantic, and a good discussion for another day.




{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Hermann 3 August 2015, 7:22 am

    Charity or giving to someone benefits the person receiving it. So who cares if one claims credit for it or does it without boasting about it? How you give is your choice too.

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